Musicians have long had a place in films, whether rock stars, jazz sidemen, or tormented composers. What follows is a selection of memorable ones taken from ten films. They range from drug-addicted cult favorites to ambitious hip-hop stars, from showtune composers to sidemen now living in small-town obscurity. What they share is a certain quality: a lingering sense that, if these characters were real, we’d want to seek out more of their music. Sometimes that’s accomplished through a deft performance, and sometimes via a writer or director who brings an insider’s knowledge of a particular style of music. In all cases, there’s something utterly compelling, and something that endures past the last frames of film.
Curt Wild, Velvet Goldmine
Todd Haynes is a director whose understanding and cinematic use of music takes a different form than most. Some directors — Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Olivier Assayas among them — innately understand the relationship between popular music and narrative cinema, and have meshed together inspired pairings of sound and image.
Haynes takes a more meditative approach — most recently in I’m Not There, his intentionally fractured look at the work and legacy of Bob Dylan. But those same tendencies took a more visceral, and sometimes heartbreaking, form in Velvet Goldmine, his examination of glam rock. And the Iggy Pop-inspired Curt Wild, played by Ewan McGregor, shifts from the film’s object of desire to, in a way, its unexpected soul.
Patrice de Courcy, Three Colours: Blue
The composer Patrice de Courcy looms largely over Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue, despite his death in the film’s opening moments. And, over the course of the film, questions are raised about exactly how much of de Courcy’s work was his own and how much could be attributed to his wife Julie. Throughout the movie, we hear different versions of the same unfinished piece, as different authors attempt to bring it to completion.
Also notable: the incorporation of work from Van den Budenmayer, a fictious composer created by Kieslowski and composer Zbiegnew Preisner. In other words, you have one fictional composer inspiring another, “centuries” later. (The interviews collected in Kieslowski on Kieslowski provide more insight into this, along with abundant information on Kieslowski’s work as filmmaker before and after the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.)
Albert Brown, CB4
When a film focuses on music, it never hurts to have a writer involved who knows the world in question. In the case of 1993’s satirical CB4, in which a rap trio led by Albert Brown (played by Chris Rock) adopt hard-edged personas and find commercial success, the number of ways in which the film could have missed the mark are legion.
Looking at the credits, however, you might note note that the film’s producer (and co-writer) was Nelson George, who has written extensively about music. (He’s contributed to Billboard and The Village Voice, and has a forthcoming novel titled The Plot Against Hip Hop.) What it means here is that CB4‘s take on early-’90s hip-hop feels sharper; the observations more insightful. And it also might explain why a music journalist serves as the conscience of the film.
Russell Hammond, Almost Famous
Cameron Crowe, who also spent years writing about music before his time as a filmmaker, has a fondness for casting musicians as, well, musicians. Members of My Morning Jacket, Sun Kil Moon, and Pearl Jam have all appeared in Crowe’s films, sometimes in sizeable roles. In Almost Famous’s Russell Hammond (played by a rarely-better Billy Crudup), though, we get a rock star who seems to exist somewhere out of time. He’s at various times enigmatic, charming, and infuriating — and he’s fantastic on the guitar.
Lee Hauser and Emily Wang, Clean
Much of Olivier Assayas’s Clean follows the efforts of Emily Wang to remain sober following the death by overdose of her husband Lee Hauser. Emily and Lee are musicians — the film opens with them in Canada, sharing a bill with Metric — and one of the impressive aspects of Assayas’s film are the details. Partway through Clean, Hauser’s father travels to the Rough Trade offices to oversee an anthology of his son’s music; we see glimpses of cover art, and even in that representation (and the film’s use of real musicians and labels), the couple seems imminent and tangible.
Peter Bretter, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Because even after all of the build-up to the moment when soundtrack composer Peter Bretter (Jason Segal) sits down to sing a selection from his “Dracula puppet musical,” it’s still both good and utterly hilarious. And because Segal seems to have taken a cue from his fictional alter ego, joining The Swell Season on stage in 2009.
Rufus, Kill Bill Vol.2
In the opening moments of Kill Bill Vol.2, a flashback features an unexpected appearance from Samuel L. Jackson as a journeyman musician now playing the piano in a chapel in the middle of nowhere. It’s a short, memorable performance, but — with references to classic soul and R&B groups — it’s a moment that unexpectedly grounds this stylized, pulp-inspired film in some aspect of the real world.
The members of Kommune, Reprise
Joachim Trier’s handling of the punk band that appears in flashbacks in his terrific 2006 film Reprise is oddly spot-on, from their amazingly titled signature song to the group’s members’ less-inspiring projects that emerge into the world after their breakup. The arcs are familiar and lived-in; they’re both hilarious and awkwardly familiar.
Tommy Johnson, O Brother Where Art Thou?
He has the name of one musician and plays songs associated with another. In the Coen Brothers’ Depression-era comedy, bluesman Tommy Johnson periodically appears in the film, suggesting some other unmade work in which he’s the protagonist and George Clooney’s group of hapless escaped convicts are the supporting players. Actor and musician Chris Thomas King, who plays Johnson in the film, later recorded an album, The Legend of Tommy Johnson, Act 1: Genesis 1900’s-1990’s, using his character (and that character’s inspiration) as a starting point for a meditation on a century of music.
Ivanhoe Martin, The Harder They Come
Given that reggae singer Ivanhoe Martin (played by Jimmy Cliff) eventually becomes an outlaw and celebrity, he may stand out as the most controversial name on this list. But it’s nearly impossible to argue with the quality of Martin’s music (having one talented musician playing another doesn’t hurt), or the soundtrack for the film as a whole, which is excellent.